Hire the Imperfect

A modest proposal to help employers

Fabio stung this certification gadfly to the core this morning. "All you ever do is complain," he said to your dear Auntie. "Why don’t you make some positive suggestions once in a while?" Now I thought that was quite unfair. All I’d done was comment that he could be dusting the tops of the doors in the guest wing just a bit more often. Isn’t that a positive suggestion?

Although our little spat wasn’t entirely pleasant, it got me thinking about the certification industry. Just about anyone who’s ever written about certification has noted and complained about the “paper MCSE” problem. Throw in some ranting about braindump sites (which still exist in profusion, despite Microsoft’s legal action against some of the ones that it could catch), and you’ve got the core of an easy-to-write opinion column.

You see the problem, though. It’s easy to complain about paper MCSEs, but it’s hard to do anything about them—like the weather, they pretty much show up whenever you advertise for a Windows systems administrator. Your favorite columnists can stand on the sidelines and wring their hands about this trend, but what can you do about it?

Well, wonder no more. Your humble servant has the answer, and it’s very simple: Hire those who fail the exams.

Oh, that’s not to say that you should hire systems admins who fail all of their MCSE exams. But when you’re looking over those résumés and thinking of sneaky little questions to ask, you might throw in one asking how many times they took their exams. The ideal candidate, according to Auntie, is one who didn’t ace all of the exams the first time around.

Think back to when you first started taking MCSE exams. Did you sail through all of them? Were they what you expected, or did you go into a few of them (like the notorious 70-217) and discover that you weren’t quite as well prepared as you thought?

So, the question is: Who goes into a set of seven exams and passes them all on the first try? I’ll tell you who—people who sit through bootcamps, who memorize braindumps or who pay for those super-realistic practice exams that drill you only on the skills that the exams test. That’s who.

On the other hand, what sort of MCSE fails an exam or two? It’s the one who studied on the job, who learned to run the network and who took the exams to prove that she knew her stuff. If you’re busy actually maintaining a network, it’s hard to cram in the trivia that Microsoft puts on the exams.

OK, so it’s not a foolproof plan. For one thing, Microsoft doesn’t include failures on the official transcript, so you’ll be relying on the honesty of job applicants. If it gets out that you’re using this rule of thumb, you can expect astute candidates to start working failures into the conversation: “I remember when I really started to understand Active Directory. It was right after I’d failed the exam…”

And Auntie is sure that she’ll hear from you übergeeks out there when this column is published. “The exams are trivially easy,” you’ll write. “I passed all seven in two days when I went to Tech Ed, and I had hangovers when I took five of them. Now excuse me, I’ve got an AD forest to reconfigure before lunch.” And I’m sure some of you did precisely that. But let’s think of the percentages here. If you take the entire pool of people who passed all the MCSE exams without a hitch, what percentage did pass based on experience rather than gaming the system?

In the end, of course, hiring qualified candidates comes down to the same rule of thumb that MCP Magazine has been advocating for ages: Certification scores should be a factor in hiring, but not the sole factor. Great scores can come from the braindump trail or from honest experience and hard work. It’s up to you to judge applicants on their own merits.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Fabio just came in and ostentatiously dusted the tops of all the doors in the room, smiling all the while. I think he wants to kiss and make up, which means I’m outta here for another month!

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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